Zaher Shah Security Headache

Can the incipient Afghan army be trusted with the task of protecting the former king during his homecoming?

Zaher Shah Security Headache

Can the incipient Afghan army be trusted with the task of protecting the former king during his homecoming?

Afghan royalists had nurtured romantic hopes of seeing their onetime king, Mohammed Zaher Shah, return to Kabul after 33 years in exile in time for last week's restoration of Nawruz (New Year) celebrations, banned by the Taleban as un-Islamic two years ago.

It wasn't to be. The unspoken fear over the homecoming, now scheduled for later this week, was that the Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies would use the event to strike against the new authorities.

Nawruz traditionally featured public parades and family picnics; and for many Afghans the return of the celebration is a milestone on the road back to normality. With everyone's guard down, the event, some analysts say, presented a golden opportunity for remnants of the former regime to mount a vengeful counter-offensive along the lines of the 1968 Tet offensive during the Vietnam war, when guerrillas slipped into towns on a public holiday and struck with devastating effect.

There's little doubt that the Taleban and al-Qaeda still pose a threat,

despite the best efforts of Afghan-US-Canadian forces to flush them out of their mountain redoubts in the east of the country.

They remain, in the words of US ground forces chief Frank Hagenbeck, a "smart, aggressive, sophisticated enemy", well appraised of the king's plans thanks to their continued use of e-mail and internet connections via the numerous satellite phones discovered by the international force.

With Hagenbeck preoccupied with hunting down renegades from the former regime, some had hoped that the British-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, would play a role in protecting the ex-monarch.

Not so. The most they've said they're prepared to do is offer him medical help in the event of any "accidents".

The ISAF is digging in its heels on this point, aware of the rising demands for security outside Kabul and the limited reach of its 4,800 troops from 18 countries.

The Pashtun monarch is due to convene a Loya Jirga in June to approve candidates for a new government to replace the present transitional authority. It is urging ISAF to provide security for its planned programme of mass public meetings ahead of the crucial assembly.

"Everywhere we go the people's first demand is that ISAF be deployed to

other cities in preparation for the Loya Jirga," former supreme court chief

and current head of the commission, Mohammed Ismail Qassimyar told the Far Eastern Economic Review this month.

The ISAF is not expected to meet the demand. Britain will be deploying 1,700 more men in Afghanistan this month, but they are coming to assist with Hagenbeck's mountain war, not to join ISAF's hearts and minds patrols.

Britain is to be relieved of its command duties when the latter's UN mandate expires in April. The only willing successor is Turkey, and Ankara publicly fears it will be abandoned by the western armies once it deploys its men.

With none of the international forces seemingly willing to protect the king, the job is likely to fall to the incipient Afghan armed forces now taking shape under interim defence minister General Mohammed Fahim.

But Fahim's gaggle of largely Tajik militias have not distinguished themselves as a security force so far. Several are accused of robbery, murder and the ethnic cleansing of Pashtun areas. The safe passage of the former king will be both test of their efficiency and impartiality.

The king, who has lived in Rome since his ouster in a palace coup in 1973, is expected to arrive in Kabul later this week, accompanied by Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and his foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

He does not expect the interim Afghan government to try to limit his

movement around the country. "There is tradition that I go around and mix with the population," he said last week. " There should not be any barriers between me and the people."

His determination to move freely around the country with only a rag-tag Afghan security force to protect him will present a huge headache for the authorities.

Rohan Jayasekera is IWPR trainer in Kabul.

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